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The Lowdown on Samhain

As part of ‘Learn Together’, Educate Together’s ethical education curriculum, our students learn about and explore the world’s major belief systems. Classes mark many of the festivals associated with these belief systems’ throughout the year through drama, art, music, history and geography. As we speak, many schools will be delving into the ancient Gaelic festival which gave rise to our modern celebration of Halloween, Samhain, and so we thought we’d share with you some of the interesting facts they’ll be encountering:

  • Samhain is an ancient Gaelic festival which marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year. Historians suggest the festival wasn’t too unlike the modern celebration of New Year's Day on January 1st in that it too carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new.
  • Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Similar festivals were held at the same time of year in other Celtic lands; for example: the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).
  • Samhain was considered a time when the barrier between our world and the spirit world was at its weakest and so it was believed that the souls of the departed returned to their former homes seeking hospitality. Accordingly, great feasts were held at Samhain with people laying places at their tables for their ancestral spirits.
  • The door between the spirit world and that of the living was not just open to the spirits of dead ancestors however. It was believed that more malevolent spirits, usually safely confined to the Otherworld, were unleashed into our realm during Samhain. In attempts to limit the havoc these spirits wreaked, people left offerings of food and drink outside to appease them.
  • The Halloween tradition of lighting bonfires originated with Samhain. Not only were bonfires considered a means of replicating the sun’s power on earth at time of the year when this power appeared to be diminishing, but they were also believed to have protective and cleansing powers— a pretty useful tool when the boundary between the living and the dead is at its most permeable!
  • Trick or Treating also evolved from the Samhain tradition of impersonating spirits or souls of the dead and calling door-to-door accepting offerings on their behalf. Disguising oneself in this way was also believed to be an effective way to protect oneself from these spirits.
  • Pumpkins weren’t the original vegetable of choice for jack-o-lanterns. During Samhain it was in fact turnips that were hollowed out, carved with grotesque faces and used as lanterns!
  • While many people know that on the morning of the Winter Solstice (December 21st) the rising sun perfectly aligns with Newgrange passage grave, few know that a similar event takes place on Samhain at another Neolithic passage grave in Meath called The Mound of Hostages.

 

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